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April 25, 2007

Stuffy Vs. Po-Mo

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In a couple of good postings, Right Reason's Max Goss notices a connection between consumerism and post-modernism. I pitched in with a comment that I'm allowing myself to gussy up and re-publish here.

Two additions to your thoughts? One is that I've known kids with degrees in Theory (ie., French post-modernism) who have gone on to careers in advertising. They've all told me that academic po-mo is in fact pretty good preparation for advertising work. Makes sense to me.

The other is ... Well, can I offer a little semi-praise for post-modernism? Not for its academic / Theoretical side, which really is pretty hideous. But for its looser, more informal-attitude side?

Academic and establishment views of art prior to the '60s and '70s in America were awfully stuffy -- as in "sneering at movies and jazz" stuffy. These attitudes badly needed shaking up. A looser, more appreciative and open attitude towards our culture was long-overdue. American culture in particular is, after all, not a centralized Official Thing but a kind of makeshift patchwork. It's a hodgepodge, an ever-scruffy, eternal work-in-progress. And our artistic/cultural greatness, such as it is, often arises from folk, oddball, and commercial (not just high-minded) fields and activities. These seem -- to me at least -- to be self-evident facts.

Short version: Any account of American art that pretends to be comprehensive and sensible yet that doesn't take into account jazz, the movies, automobile design, Chuck Jones, Bette Davis, and Bo Diddley is a joke, at least as far as I'm concerned.

I was in school in the transition years (early '70s), and it was an odd time. On the one hand: played-out, drunken old New-Criticism farts. On the other: dynamic, exciting (but, alas, politically-driven) young Turks who wanted a total revolution. Basically, as far as I could tell, it was about a new generation of young and greedy academics who coveted the tenure that the drunken old farts were abusing.

But for someone in the midst of it, it boiled down to a stark A-or-B choice: between blindly defending the old-style loftiness or joining the politically-motivated young careerists in overthrowing it and leveling everything out. The option I favored (don't throw out the stuffy old canon -- it's pretty neat in its own right -- but do open it hugely up) just wasn't available. Proud to say I took the sensible course of leaving academia and never looking back.

Anyway, the experience left me wondering about America, and about how we always seem to be generating these polarized, no-win situations. There seems to be an in-the-genes drive in our life to turn everything into a pro wrestling contest.

Why do we find it so hard to achieve balance? Why does it always have to be A vs. B? What do we have against A+B? Could it be that we have something against balance?

My own guess at an answer to this question is that 1) we're culturally insecure -- we simply don't know what to make of art and culture, and we're fantastically defensive about this. And 2) because we do generate unhappiness and imbalance semi-deliberately. We really do, it seems to me. Literal-minded yet forever aspiring to better things, we generate imbalance in order to create dissatisfaction, which we then use to spur ourselves on to new heights, or so we think. Where, of course, we're never satisfied either ...

I wrote an Artchat Survival Guide to post-modernism here.



posted by Michael at April 25, 2007


Unintended consequences. By which I mean...the real motivator for nearly everything is "control". In Max Goss' comments, he talks about how when consumers take advice like "be the artist of your own life" to heart, they didn't upend the market as much as shatter it into a million submarkets. Just like the ipod--now you don't have to pay for the songs you don't want. Ooops. The advertisers and makers of consumer goods didn't anticipate that. They wanted to create a new taste which, then, of course, only their product, or their advertising, could meet. Instead the market zipped right around them, in a way. And now they might have less control than ever!! I still maintain the who thrust behind modernism seems to be to upend the historical "holders of control"---and transfer it to themselves. Not to "do away with control." Any more than the commies in Russia at the top of the party really wanted to "do away with control." They just wanted it, instead of the Czar having it!!

An interesting way to look at anything---social trends, artistic trends, political trends---is "how is control shifted, and to whom."

Posted by: annette on April 25, 2007 4:05 PM

Interesting thoughts. You write "Could it be that we have something against balance?" I don't think we even know what balance is--it's un-American. And in America, one person's balance is another's nightmare.

One can have balanced thinking, I believe, which requires above all that one not take oneself too seriously. But balance on a social level? Nah-not possilbe. Why? I think your example of dropping out of school sheds some light on why. It may be that those people in your generation who were not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water had a view too nuanced to take root in academia or pop culture (and the why of that is another conversation). But the end result is an academic world where discursive po-mo (if not politically radical) writing and thinking is the ideal. And as I just got my master's in social work I can guarantee that this is the case! And like you, I don't see it as all bad. But I have sat in many a class (especially cultural anthropology classes) where I wanted to say "What the *&^% are we talking about?" It's like having 20 conversations at the same time non of which can have any meaning or be attached to an action. One can get real nostalgic for the "old days" of exalted professors who knew what it was they knew.

Posted by: The Lock on April 25, 2007 5:14 PM

Is it lofty vs. leveling? Is it not rather, lofty vs playful?

I'm asking seriously. Confession: I find it harder and harder to read serious literature, listen to serious music, look at fine art or even arty film. Something in me rebels against not only the ponderous but also the complex, even when honestly presented. If this were just a personal diminishment of taste it would merit no consideration. But I think it is happening on an endemic scale. Something in me, and in many many others, increasingly has no patience with the presumption that "the heavy" is heavier than the light, the playful -- in short, comedy.

Could it be that the age of tragedy is over?

Posted by: ricpic on April 25, 2007 6:53 PM

I agree with annette that power is a factor.

But I also think that careerism is part of the game. For several generations, the path to notoriety has been to curse the bourgeoisie, the previous (artistic / academic / whatever) generation, or both. After 150 years or so this doesn't strike me as being very imaginative. Yet it almost always seems to work, so I can't fully fault the tactic.

Interesting about PoMo and advertising. For many years I've contended that contemporary art is actually a branch of Public Relations. (Due to careerism, natch.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 25, 2007 7:05 PM

Boy, I really think ricpic is onto something!! Maybe the need for the light and frothy and funny arises from the feeling that the world around us is less secure, more genuinely serious, and we can only take so much! Like "musicals" being really popular during the depression and WWII, while heavy Elia Kazan/Marlon Brando dramas flourished during relative peace and prosperity (at least for whites) in the fifties. The happier we are, the more deep we want to be. The more deep and serious the world is, the more we want fun, fun, fun. So...maybe we are reaching for "balance" in our own way.

The reason I think Europe isn't a good comparison for the U.S. is that, in terms of world events--the "world around us"---they are largely specatators now. So where they are in terms of the way in which they reach for balance may, out of necessity, be quite different than it is for "superpower" Americans.

Posted by: annette on April 26, 2007 9:51 AM

Woo-hoo! Fun to encounter such smart perceptive people! I'm having a good time chewing on all this.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2007 12:12 PM

To ricpic and annette:

I am in agreement. I think this might be why I like Cuban music so much. Cubans have been under the thumb of the Bearded One for over two generations and Cuban society is a monolithic underclass. Cuban religious, folkloric, and popular musics have been the lifeblood of the people there, taking these various musical traditions to new levels of creativity and virtuosity. The music in Cuba, is more than anything, about having fun. It is intended to uplift the heart and inspire the body to dance (the birth of swing dancing came out of those heavy WWII years). Cubans eat music like food. And to the extant there is a political statement in the music, it is made with the fiery intensity of the music itself (until recently that is).

I think part of the beauty (and tragedy) of the music and arts in Cuba over the last 45+ years is how the Cubans responded to a lack of free speech. Without the ability to verbalize political beliefs or yearnings, the lyrical content of the music uses humor and wit in subtle ways almost invisible to the uninformed outsider. And while I pray that the Cubans will soon have their freedom, the musical traditions there stand in stark contrast to many of the whiny, burdensome musical expressions that were created in the same post-revolution period and were born out of American existential angst (which, of course, I love too...)

Posted by: The Lock on April 26, 2007 12:19 PM

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